Being part of the infield for these rebuilding Orioles often means not being part of the long-term solution. The team’s decision to move on from second baseman Yolmer Sánchez after five weeks of spring training is only the latest example.
Sánchez, a waiver claim this fall who was only a year removed from a Gold Glove award at second base, was the presumptive starting second baseman for the 2021 Orioles.
But when the team needed a roster spot for pitcher Adam Plutko after acquiring him from Cleveland on Saturday for cash considerations, Sánchez ended up designated for assignment, leaving the Orioles without a permanent solution at that spot.
Until there is one, whoever gets plugged in at second base — or shortstop or third base — will be as replaceable as Sánchez proved to be. The difference between rebuilding players and contending ones is easy to tell, and the Orioles aren’t close to turning that corner yet on the infield.
“The flip side to that is we have a tremendous homegrown outfield that we’re starting to see and we have a lot of options there, and infield has been an area where we’ve had to bring in a lot of external parts since 2019 — almost all of the regular players have been external other than at first base,” executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said.
“The last few drafts, the last few trade deadlines, our whole international effort, you’ve seen us try to really flood our system with not only infielders but middle infielders, guys who can play short, second and third. Hopefully, those guys can move quickly and continue to develop and we’ll have the same type of internally grown talent that you’re starting to see from our outfield, which is a really exciting group.”
Such a descriptor will not be used about the Orioles’ infield, with Sánchez or without, though Trey Mancini at first base is in a category to himself. Veteran Freddy Galvis at shortstop and third basemen Rio Ruiz and Maikel Franco round out that group.
Unless a player becomes available on waivers or in free agency who could play second base for the Orioles at the right price, second base will be the domain of either Pat Valiaka or Ramón Urías — two players who started camp well offensively but have since fallen off in their pursuits to be on the roster as a utility player.
Below them on the depth chart, promising trade acquisition Jahmai Jones and Rylan Bannon will be training at the secondary site in Bowie once that opens as they await the Triple-A season’s start. They could be options at second base later in the season.
Either of those prospects could count as a possible long-term solution at the position, but neither is a guaranteed major league regular. They do, however, represent the Orioles’ efforts in recent years to try and bulk up a deficiency in their player-development ranks.
Bannon came to the Orioles in the Manny Machado trade in July 2018 under Dan Duquette. However, since Elias took over, he’s used high draft picks on infielders Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg, Anthony Servideo, Coby Mayo and Darell Hernaiz. Trades over the last year brought infielder Terrin Vavra in the Mychal Givens trade with the Colorado Rockies and Jones for right-hander Alex Cobb from the Los Angeles Angels.
The strength of that group is those recent draftees, specifically Henderson and Westburg. But they’re likely ticketed for A-ball for their full-season debuts this spring. Vavra could be at Double-A Bowie when the season starts. There’s talent in that group, but they’re simply not close.
In the interim, the Orioles will piece together the infield the way they have for the last few years.
Sánchez was replacing Hanser Alberto at second base, who had two entertaining and at-times productive seasons there for the Orioles after he bounced around waivers ahead of the 2019 season. Alberto wasn’t tendered a contract this winter and is with the Kansas City Royals.
At third base, Ruiz was claimed off waivers in December 2018 and will be in his third season as the Orioles’ third baseman, though his uneven play led the Orioles to bring in Franco as a right-handed corner infielder to take some at-bats from him. That’s a role that was previously held by Renato Núñez (minus actually playing third base), another infielder who proved fungible for these Orioles.
The only spot they’ve avoided the waiver wire thus far among those three infield positions is shortstop, where Jonathan Villar and Richie Martin shared duties in 2019 before Villar was dealt to the Miami Marlins. José Iglesias was signed for 2020 and had a career year offensively, but the Orioles traded him to the Angels after picking up his 2021 contract option. Galvis took his place on a $1.5 million deal in January.
As Iglesias showed, there’s value in inexpensive, major league-quality players if you can sign them for below market value. As Ruiz and maybe Urías can demonstrate, it’s not the worst idea to give a younger player who hasn’t gotten a chance an everyday run in the big leagues to see if he can develop.
But the drawback of such a method is a lack of cohesion and a sense that nothing is permanent. What little has been visible of the Orioles’ spring training games, both from the first week of games in-person and the limited broadcasts, has shown an infield defense that’s challenged range-wise and hasn’t turned as many double plays as would be expected.
For a team that will be trying to bring along as many as five rookie starting pitchers, a strong defensive infield is a basic requirement. It’s one thing to point to the high Florida skies and the swirling winds in spring training ballparks to explain away shaky outfield play, but it’s harder to cover for ground balls not being turned into outs multiple times per game.
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Perhaps this time next year, Bannon and Jones will have won jobs and there will be a new, more promising look to the Orioles’ infield as the top prospects climb the system. Until they arrive, though, it will be pretty easy to tell how close the team is to competing again.